Here is an essay I wrote recently response to the prompt:
What book has changed your view of the world?
Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope, an interpretation of pragmatist philosophy, has had a profound influence on my understanding of the world. More specifically, it offered the initial outline for deep logical roots that now firmly ground my sense of personal and social responsibility. This foundation is something I have searched for throughout my life and Rorty’s collection of essays and lectures has become something of a personal cornerstone in its ability to unite my professional interest in social justice and my academic interest in philosophy.
Since my undergraduate studies, I have been taken by the history and power of ideas. Thoughts are incredible, like invisible tools that carve shape and purpose into the events of our lives. In my early college years, Plato attracted my interest most. The landscape he offers is one of absolute truths, which exist independent of our awareness or experience. In this world, virtues–such as social justice–simply exist in and of themselves. Since virtues are inherently good and absolute, we all have the moral imperative of pursuing virtuous action. To decipher the good from the bad, we simply need to pursue the clearest understanding of reality. If person A believes that X is moral and person B believes that X is immoral, Plato would say that one of these men must be experiencing some distorted perception of X, as only one belief can be categorically correct.
I found this to be a satisfying framework–and then I read Sartre. Within the span of a single university semester, his brand of existentialist philosophy deeply challenged my familiar concept of realism. Sartre argues that these familiar and “absolute” values are actually just comfortable illusions: arbitrary constructs that serve as grounding points for self-created conceptions of the word. If posed with determining the morality of X, Sartre would argue that there is in fact no inherent morality of X: person A and person B are just equally good at fooling themselves into believing otherwise. Sartre does not argue that ethics should not be used, but rather that we should understand that it is impossible for one set of ethics to be more “true” than another–just as it is impossible for Mickey Mouse to be somehow more real than Donald Duck. Determining morality then is more a matter of interpreting fiction than discovering truth.
As a student, neither of these philosophies was entirely helpful in understanding my growing passion for human rights. With a mounting pile of educational debt, I wanted a rational understanding as to why I was about to take a low paying job to help others; and why this was a reasonable thing to do. In Plato’s structure, my belief in social causes was allowable, but it was still only about as logically defensible as someone arguing in favor of the existence of God. I could believe in the “absolute” moral imperative for social responsibility all I wanted, but if someone argued the exact opposite our conversation would be as productive as pitting one God against the next. In Sartre’s world, I faced a different problem: here, moral truths were mere fictions, and as such there was no basis for one fiction being more valid than the next.
In my senior year, William James helped me close this gap. His works, including Varieties of Religious Experience and the essay “Will to Believe,” paved the way for a fresh conception of epistemology and meta-ethics. James spoke with a new vocabulary when determining the value of actions: instead of focusing on the intrinsic value or moral statements, James would discuss their “usefulness” or “cash-value” by exploring their practical outcomes in a given situation. James argued that moral truth is not a static object to be studied, but rather a red herring that distracts from the more important study of actions and their useful or un-useful outcomes. Usefulness, James argues, is defined by how the action impacts the lives of others. Thus, an action that is right for one person may be wrong for another, depending on the outcomes. While James’ contemporaries accused him of heresy, blasphemy and relativism, I found myself drawn to his ideas. In James’ framework, person A and person B might still disagree about the morality of X, but at least they would have something substantive to talk about in the course of this disagreement, namely the real world consequences of their respective beliefs.
Equipped with this pragmatic understanding of ethics, I stretched out the repayment term of my student loans and launched a career in human rights. This philosophy even helped narrow my job search, limiting myself to only those non-profit organizations that were poised to make a substantial, measurable, “real-world” impact on a social issue. When Polaris offered me a position three years ago, I jumped at the opportunity. This was the right thing to do, I told my debt-worried parents, because there was an incredibly high practical value in the work of freeing people from modern day slavery.
As I continued to read more pragmatist’s works in the context of my new career, one question continued to bother me: While I might find it “most useful” to help people out of modern day slavery, the criminals I am opposing surely disagree. They might argue that it is “most useful” to sell individuals through exploitation and abuse and that this action has the very practical value of producing an incredible amount of material gain. In pragmatic thought, I wondered, what leg could I stand on to prove that my conception of “useful” is better than theirs?
Enter Richard Rorty. One Sunday afternoon, in an attempt to rejuvenate after a particularly long workweek, I picked up Philosophy of Social Hope and headed to a cafe. Inside, I found a very compelling argument that resolved this question, effectively removing the “relativism flaw” from the pragmatist position.
Rorty studied James a great deal, but his main philosophical hero is Dewey, a philosopher who helped define pragmatism by building on James’ foundation. Dewey convincingly demonstrated how Democracy can be defended as the “ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity,” not because it is any more true than another belief system (say Buddhism, or Libertarianism for example), but rather because its practical usefulness can be undeniably proved for any society.
Rorty takes this notion and runs with it. Instead of stopping with democracy, Rorty points out how pragmatist thought has the incredible potential to unite conflicting minds around many of the world’s social problems. In his essay, “Ethics Without Principles” he writes the following about the pragmatist model of determining morality:
“…you cannot aim at ‘doing what is right’, because you will never know whether you have hit the mark.….But you can aim at ever more sensitivity to pain, and ever greater satisfaction of ever more various needs. Pragmatists think that the idea of something nonhuman luring us human beings on should be replaced with the idea of getting more and more human beings into our community–of taking the needs and interests and views of more and more diverse human beings into account. Justificatory ability is its own reward. There is no need to worry about whether we will also be rewarded with a sort of immaterial medal labeled ‘Truth’ or ‘Moral Goodness.’”
By firmly tying the notion of “good” to the act of helping the human community, Rorty transforms the notion of a “moral imperative” into something tangible. Anyone interested in pursuing “good” actions, must commit themselves to understanding and healing the pains that are felt in this world. This imperative, can be applied to most all social issues, and has been a very helpful guide as I try to understand my career’s work.
In addition to casting the familiar complaints against pragmatism in general, Rorty’s critics have also attacked him on the grounds of his quick dismissal of long standing religious traditions. They argue that these belief structures, grounded by a divine moral authority, have productively united the moral conscience of societies for centuries and are pivotal belief systems for societal order. What value is there in tearing the rug out from a moral man by telling him there isn’t a God?
This criticism, in my opinion, sorely misses Rorty’s point. Rorty does not work to dismantle the notion of God or Truth all together, he simply points out that since we can never firmly grasp these notions, perhaps we should plan out our actions based on something we can grasp: in this case, the outcomes of our actions and the effects that our actions have on our peers. In many ways this is precisely what religions have been calling on followers to do for years: Christians are commanded to treat one’s neighbors (and even one’s enemies) as they would treat themselves; Buddhists are instructed to ground themselves in the present and to recognize the “oneness” of all people and actions; and Muslims are instructed to focus on the enactment of good deeds, which are naturally rewarded with good outcomes. Rorty is not actually casting off these traditions at all. Rather, his philosophy stands in firm support of religion’s call for compassion and service. All that he has done is offer a common language where by all men can discuss the virtues of these actions without invoking the authority of one God over another. Ultimately, finding a way to engage in a global conversation about helping one’s society without discussing God is hardly the same as claiming that God does not exist.
Rather, Philosophy and Social Hope it is a profound expansion of pragmatist thought that offers an incredibly exciting platform for ethical discourse and exploration. Rorty has delivered a useful tool whereby we can delve deeply into the work of solving society’s needs without having to ask ourselves the paralyzing question: why? When meeting basic humanitarian needs, this question often distracts from the pure effort of helping others and contributing to our larger environment. For Rorty, the usefulness of service is enough of a justification in itself-no strings attached. By finding a way to avoid absolute truths and yet preserve a prescriptive call to action, the author’s work is an impressive accomplishment. Rorty starts with philosophy and ends with hope.